An award-winning translator describes and defends his profession.
Bellos (French and Comparative Literature/Princeton Univ.; Romain Gary: A Tall Story, 2010, etc.) has a broad definition of translation: in general, the ability of the human mind to convert stimuli into meaning. He begins by imagining a world without translation—recognizing the unpleasant possibility of such a situation—and then identifies and analyzes key issues of his discipline. He dispenses with some common misconceptions about translation (“Translations are substitutes for original texts. You use them in the place of a work written in a language you cannot read with ease”) and examines some of the difficulties and oddities of the enterprise. For example, how to translate into French those portions of War and Peace that are already in French? Bellos also discusses dictionaries (observing that, in one sense, a language becomes a language when it has a dictionary) and dismisses what he calls the myth of literal translation (word-for-word substitution). He reminds us of the canard about Eskimos having scores of words for “snow” and deals with issues like the translation of sacred texts, the difficulty of simultaneous oral translation and translation problems in the fields of law and journalism. There are some stunning moments along the way, as when he offers a dozen variations of a translation of a Chinese shunkouliu (“oral grapevines”). There are moments of humor, too (oh, the problems translating naughty jokes!). Bellos realizes that in literary translation, the only way to experience the author’s original effect is to read the text in the original language. His passion sometimes propels him into hyperbole, but never for long.
Erudite and occasionally dense, but ultimately illuminating, even transformative.